In addition to Singapore, which I wrote about on Friday, Chicago is another great dining destination—I’m not saying that merely because it’s my hometown. You can get not only fantastic casual (pizza, sausages), ethnic (Mexican, Thai), and traditional (steakhouse, diner) meals there, but also some of the best fine-dining in the country, from the legendary Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s) to the innovative Grant Achatz (Alinea).
On my recent return visit, there were three new places both friends and strangers consistently mentioned: Xoco, Terzo Piano and Nightwood.
Xoco, 449 N. Clark St. (enter on Illinois), 312-334-3688, www.xocochicago.com
Xoco is the latest establishment from one of Chicago’s most famous chefs, Rick Bayless. It opened on Sept. 8, and the lines have been out the door ever since. Bayless made a name for himself with Mexican cuisine (at restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo) and continues to do so with Xoco. This time around the focus is on Mexican street food.
The Almendrado chocolate and churros at Xoco. (Credit: Donna M. Airoldi)
I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of Frontera—I’ve enjoyed better food (and prices) in other Chicago Mexican restaurants that were more authentic and didn’t come with a room full of North Side and suburban yuppies—so I wasn’t entirely looking forward to the experience. However, I was pleasantly surprise this time. My two dining companions and I were all impressed, especially with the “Bean-to-Cup Chocolate,” quite possible the best hot chocolate outside of Spain or Mexico. Be sure to get the 3-for-$3 churros—crunchy and cinnamon-coated on the outside, soft on the inside—for dipping. I also was quite taken with the homemade tortilla chips.
The tortas (served after 11 a.m.) come on traditional Mexican breads: bolillo, similar to a baguette, for those from the wood-burning oven; telera, slightly rounder and softer, for the pressed sandwiches. My conchinita pibil—wood-roasted suckling pig with achiete, black beans, pickled onion and habanero—was tender, tasty and, when dipped in the fiery accompanying sauce, tingly. The caldos (soups) sounded divine—shortrib red chile soup with braised tallgrass shortribs, red chile broth, roasted vegetables, epazote, wild arugula and lime, anyone?—but are served after 3 p.m., so we were too early to taste those. The breakfast menu, served until 10:30 a.m., tempted as well.
Xoco is the smallest and most casual of Bayless’ restaurants: no reservations accepted, and you stand in line (plan on at least an hour or longer), then place your order at the register—but not before you’re handed a card, indicating that there is a seat available for you. It’s daunting/annoying at first, but works surprisingly well, provided you don’t mind the long wait.
Average prices: Breakfast, $2 to $7.50; Tortas, $8 to $12; Caldos, $10.50 to $12.50; Salads and Sides, $3 to $8.50; Hot Chocolate, $2.50 to $3.25. Hours: Tue. to Thu., 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fri., 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sun. and Mon.
Terzo Piano, 150 E. Monroe St. (third floor of the Modern Wing, Art Institute of Chicago), 312-443-8650, www.terzopianochicago.com
The new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago was tops on my list for new attractions to see during this visit. Lunch at its new restaurant was an added bonus.
We called for a Monday reservation, but the restaurant was booked full. No surprise since the place is overseen by chef Tony Mantuano, of Spiaggia fame, and open for dinner just one night per week (Thursdays). We tried our luck with a cancellation, showed up at noon, and were seated in the slick, modern (natch), all-white-décor dining room within 15 minutes. Not bad.
Dietzler Farm stead salad; interior at Terzo Piano. (Credit: Donna M. Airoldi)
The food wasn’t bad either. My friend and I were each in the mood for healthy greens. She tried the Mizuna salad with Miller’s organic chicken breast, avocado, cilantro, lime and ginger cashew dressing. My Dietzler Farm steak salad with arugula, orange, kalamata olives and almonds with a caper-mustard dressing was quite good—and I was thrilled with the hefty amount of meat included, which was cooked perfectly rare. I preferred the steak over the chicken (which was a tad bland), and while chock full of fresh ingredients, we both agreed that each salad suffered from a heavy-handed pour of dressing, and mine was a tad too salty. Lesson learned: ask for the dressing on the side.
The dessert selections were spot on, however—light, with just enough sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth. It was difficult to decide between the local wildflower honey panna cotta with autumn fruit compote and rosemary, and the almond financier with blueberry thyme compote and crème fraîche sorbet. We chose the latter, which came instead with cranberry compote since the kitchen was out of blueberries.
Lunch prices: Appetizers, $7 to 16; Sandwiches/Salads, $15 to $19; Pasta/Entrees, $18 to $25; Desserts, $9. Hours: Lunch, Mon. to Sun., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Antipasti and Aperitivo, Thu., 3 to 5 p.m.; Dinner (ala carte or $45 3-course prix fixe), Thu. only, 5 to 9 p.m.
Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted St. (Pilsen neighborhood), 312-526-3385, www.nightwoodrestaurant.com
No fewer than five individuals recommended this place, open since May. And how could they not, when the owners are the husband-and-wife team (Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds) behind Lula Café, a fantastic restaurant in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. It has been getting raves since it opened 10 years ago (and is where, I’m told, local chefs go to eat when they’re not working in their own kitchens).
Nightwood interior. (Credit: Jason Little Photography)
The menu changes daily as all ingredients are sourced from local farms and markets, for a locavore’s dream meal. One consistency: many dishes are wood-grilled. Those that have impressed local critics in recent months: “anything with chicken liver … potato gnocchi with tomato and corn … spit-roasted pork loin accompanied by roasted apricots and topped with a delicious blend of chopped olives and crème fraîche,” suggested Phil Vettel in the Chicago Tribune. “A brioche bread pudding appetizer was homey and inspired … the woodsy scent of the cheeseburger (worth ordering for the crisp french fries alone) hints at the meat’s earthy flavor,” wrote Time Out Chicago’s Julia Kramer.
Alas, I was unable to make it to this South Side newcomer before my visit ended as I staying on the North Side and was carless. However I have no doubt the trip would have been worth the effort via public transportation, had I had the time, given how much I adore Lula (where I did manage to get in an amazing dinner last week). Readers, next time you’re in Chicago, you’ll just have to try it and let me know how it goes.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $10; Entrees, $13 to $26; Desserts, $2.50 to $8; Brunch entrees, $6 to $14. Hours: Dinner, Tue. to Sat., 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sun. Brunch, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Mon.